The UVM-led research team is receiving $ 2.9 million from the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Program to explore the health, economic and environmental benefits of feeding dairy cows with algae.

While the majority of diets for organically fed cows come from pasture or preserved forages, dietary supplements are often needed to support the animals during the winter months. Researchers are exploring the potential multifaceted benefits of algae as a dietary supplement. UVM photo.

Vermont Business Magazine A multi-institutional research team led by Sabrina Greenwood of UVM has received $ 2.9 million to explore the potential benefits to animal health, the environment and the economy of algae as a dietary alternative for humans. organic dairy cows. The grant is one of a number of new USDA-funded organic research and extension projects to help improve yields, milk quality, and profitability for organic farmers and producers.

The volatility of organic milk prices over the past few years has put a strain on the organic dairy community. As farmers struggle to maintain constant financial viability, they also face the growing impacts of climate change and increasing pressure to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint. Seaweed is a nutritious alternative to traditional corn and soy food supplements and has the potential to reduce methane emissions from cows. Algae can also be grown sustainably and can improve soil health by altering the manure profiles of the cows that eat the algae.

“Teaming up with the aquaculture industry can be a perfect match for addressing the sustainability of organic farms and the efficiency of organic dairy production,” said Greenwood, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences and project director. “We seek to holistically characterize the opportunities for organic algae to provide not only a more sustainable feeding option, but also one that could increase dairy productivity and animal health without compromising natural resources. “

While the majority of diets for organically fed cows come from pasture or conserved forages such as silage and hay, supplementation is often needed to provide enough protein and energy to support the animals through the months of life. ‘winter. Different species of algae have radically different nutritional values ​​and profiles, which have not been fully explored. Early research has shown that algae can have beneficial effects on animal health, including lower incidence of certain diseases, better reproductive success and better milk quality.

Kelp meal, a supplement made from a common brown algae, has become popular among organic farmers, but other algae species and processing methods may offer greater health benefits for cows, milk productivity and the environment. Over the next four years, the team, which includes researchers from UVM, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, University of New Hampshire and Syracuse University, as well as collaborators from the Northeast , will explore the nutritional profile of various algae species and treatment methods. , how these nutrients impact animal health and milk quality, and how they return to pasture soil via urine and manure.

“One of the unique aspects of this project is our focus on how algae supplements might affect the flow of nutrients from manure to soils and then to the forages that cows eat,” noted Alix Contosta, professor. research assistant at the University of New Hampshire. .

Cultivation of seaweed for food also has the potential to expand the aquaculture industry in the northeast, which is home to 40% of the country’s organic dairies, improving supply chain efficiency and boosting economies. local.

“Maine has a burgeoning organic algae industry that is diversifying the species that farmers grow and always looking for new market opportunities. Organic dairy products could represent the first sector to adopt innovative algae-based feed additives that could be applicable to other beef industries, ”said Nichole Price, principal investigator at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

The project also includes an important element of outreach by interviewing farmers, growers and industry partners to better understand market opportunities for algae as well as educational and demonstration opportunities to help further uptake of algae. seaweed as a more sustainable feeding option.

“What I’m particularly passionate about is this systems approach, which I think is a particular strength of our university and regional partnerships,” said David Conner, professor in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics at UVM, which will oversee the supply chain aspect. of the project. “The extent to which we can improve the links between local businesses, the better for the local economy and the more resilient food systems we can build. This work could help us relocate dairy supply chains to improve dairy viability in Vermont and the region.

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